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Thursday, December 13, 2012
About that expanded NFL playoff field

By Mike Sando

This had to be a setup. I'm minding my business Thursday. Boss calls with an idea. He wants to poll our NFL divisional bloggers on a potential expanded playoff format. I'm game.

Initial reaction: Why mess with a good thing? Why lower the bar? Aren't 12 teams enough? But after thinking it over and consulting with my internal contrarian, another question came to mind. Why not? What's so special or sacred about the current setup? Nothing, is what.

"Don't give me this stuff about watering down the product," I told the boss. "That ship sailed a long time ago. More football, please. More late-season drama, please. We could selfishly call it the St. Louis Rams Restoration Act of 2012, because an expanded playoff field would help teams such as the Rams, who are currently 6-6-1 and riding a three-game winning streak, but still a long shot for the playoffs under the current system."

Turns out I was the only one taking such a position. The item published Thursday makes me look like some sort of outcast, even more than usual. But as I mentioned during some back-and-forth on Twitter, I'm not proposing bumper boats and a go-kart track for Augusta National. We're just talking about adding to the postseason fun. If you ask me, most of the cons are imaginary ones.

Opponents overwhelmingly fret over the potential watering down of the product into something approximating what passes for the postseason in other sports. But we're not talking about best-of-seven series here. We're talking about strengthening the idea that just about every team has a real chance to do something special. The NFL does a great job selling the promise of tomorrow. That's part of the draft's appeal, too.

"Thanks for being the lone voice in favor of expanded playoffs," an NFC West blog reader named Andy wrote. "The problem with 'experts' weighing in is that they're not die-hard fans of particular teams.

"Pundits are happy with the playoffs because the playoffs exist every year for them. If you're a Browns fan, they only exist every once in a while. Christmas would not get any less special if we got presents for every kid instead of just for most. If you're a crappy team, hey, you might get a playoff game three times in 10 years instead of never. If you're a good team, your team is more likely to get a playoff win."

Expanding the playoff field would not open the floodgates for teams with losing records. Losing teams would most likely qualify for an expanded playoff field only if they won their divisions, same as the situation now. The additional playoff berths would usually go to teams finishing 8-8 or better. Eight missed the playoffs last season.

The current system, in place since 1990, has excluded from the postseason 47 teams that were 9-7 or better, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The 2010 Seattle Seahawks were the only team worse than 8-8 to qualify during that time, and that was simply because the planets aligned so that no team from the NFC West had a winning record that season. Even then, Seattle knocked off the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in a game that produced one of the all-time great runs in league history.

Look, I'm not campaigning for an expanded playoff field, but neither can I see any great risk to the game in selling the dream to a few additional fan bases each winter.